Repression rules: Report finds freedoms under attack across Asia

Report says Taiwan only ‘open’ territory in Asia, as it raises alarm over ‘regression’ of civic rights in India, Brunei.

Kashmir protest
CIVICUS said that since Narendra Modi came to power there had been a systematic crackdown on critics in India including activists, journalists and students, as well as on the population of the Kashmir region [File: Tauseef Mustafa/AFP]

The assault on civil society and fundamental freedoms in Asia is getting worse, according to a new report from the civil rights group CIVICUS, which found only one of 25 territories in the region could be considered free.

In a report released on Wednesday, the Johannesburg-based group said it downgraded two more countries to the “repressed” category, leaving Taiwan the only place considered “open”.

The report said it was “particularly alarmed by the regression of fundamental civic rights” in India, the world’s largest democracy, and Brunei, an absolute monarchy in Southeast Asia.

China continues to be the main offender on censorship, it added.

“The percentage of people living in Asian countries with closed, repressed or obstructed civic space is now at 95 percent,” Josef Benedict of CIVICUS said in a statement published online.

In India, the report raised alarm following the reported attacks on activists and journalists – some of whom have been assaulted or killed “just for doing their job”.

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In September, Indian journalist Pawan Kumar Jaiswal and his family were “living in fear”, after he reported alleged corruption in Uttar Pradesh state.

Since his report was published, police have filed criminal cases against him, accusing him of defaming the state headed by the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

There were also several other incidents of arrests and detentions, as well as physical attacks on journalists across the country this year and in 2018, pushing India further down the World Press Freedom Index released by Reporters Without Borders.

Clampdown in Kashmir

According to a report by the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), there were at least seven media-related killings in India in 2018, making it the fifth-deadliest country for journalists that year.

“Since Narendra Modi came to power there has been a systematic crackdown on critics in India including activists, journalists and students,” the CIVICUS report said.

CIVICUS also raised concerns over India’s use of “restrictive laws to stifle opposition voices” such as students, activists and academics.

Kashmiri demonstrators react during clashes with Indian police during a protest against the killing of Zakir Rashid Bhat also known as Zakir Musa, the leader of an al Qaeda affiliated militant group i
CIVICUS said the clampdown on civic space in the disputed Kashmir is ‘extremely worrying’ [File: Danish Ismail/Reuters]

It pointed out that Modi’s government is also using the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act (FCRA) to stop foreign funding and to investigate non-profit organisations that are critical of the government.

The clampdown on civic space in the disputed Kashmir region since August is also “extremely worrying”, CIVICUS added.

Indian-administered Kashmir has been sealed off for more than 100 days, following Modi’s decision to scrap partial autonomy in the area.

While some communications restrictions, such as landline phones and post-paid mobile services, have been lifted, the ban on internet, text messaging and prepaid mobile connections has continued. 

Restrictive laws in Brunei

CIVICUS also downgraded to “repressed” the status of Brunei, after the revised penal code imposing the death penalty for various offences, including insulting the Prophet Muhammad, as well as rape, adultery, sodomy and robbery was enacted in April 2019 .

The new law mostly applies to Muslims, although some aspects will also apply to non-Muslims.

It also introduces public flogging as punishment for abortion as well as amputation for theft and criminalises exposing Muslim children to the beliefs and practices of any religion other than Islam.

However, Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah ordered a moratorium on the reported plan to punish gay sex and adultery with death by stoning following a global backlash.

“The international community must not turn a blind eye to this and instead call on the authorities to repeal the array of restrictive laws,” CIVICUS said.

Censorship in China, sedition in the Philippines

Meanwhile, the report said that censorship remains “the most common civic space violation” in the region, occurring in 20 countries.

China continues to be the main offender as it expands its censorship regime, blocking critical outlets and social media sites, it said.

“This was demonstrated in the run-up to the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre and during the anti-government protests in Hong Kong,” CIVICUS said.

Other countries on the censorship offender list are Bangladesh, Thailand and Pakistan.

Hong Kong protests
The report also accuses China of imposing heavy censorship on reports about the ongoing Hong Kong protests [File: Thomas Peter/Reuters]

In the Philippines, CIVICUS noted, that anyone who “dared to criticise President Duterte now faces sedition and other charges”.

Since assuming office in mid-2016, Philippine President Rodridgo Duterte has targeted several media companies he has perceived as against him.

On December 3, he threatened the country’s largest television network, ABS-CBN, accusing the television company of “swindling” for refusing to run his political advertisements during the 2016 campaign season – allegations that the television network has denied.

The president warned that it could lose its licence to operate by March 2020.

In 2017, the owners of the Philippine Daily Inquirer were forced to sell the country’s most-read newspaper to an ally and political financier of Duterte, billionaire businessman Ramon Ang, after the president criticised the newspaper, which had published stories about his wealth during the campaign.

Despite this “bleak picture” across Asia, there were some bright spots, CIVICUS noted.

The Maldives repealed an anti-defamation law, while Malaysia scrapped its “repressive” Anti-Fake News Act and Taiwan voted to legalise same-sex marriage.

Source: Al Jazeera